Is Gates Undermining Another Opening to Iran?

WASHINGTON — When U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused Iran of “subversive activity” in Latin America Tuesday, it raised the question whether he is trying to discourage President Barack Obama from abandoning the hard line policy of coercive diplomacy toward Iran he has favored for nearly three decades.

In making a new accusation against Iran, just as Obama is still considering his diplomatic options on Iran, Gates appears to reprising his role in undermining a plan by President George H. W. Bush in early 1992 to announce goodwill gestures to Iran as reciprocity for Iranian help in freeing U.S. hostages from Lebanon.

Bush ultimately abandoned the plan, which had been three years in the making, after Gates, as CIA director, claimed in Congressional appearances that new intelligence showed Iran was seeking weapons of mass destruction and planning terrorist attacks.

In his Senate armed services committee testimony Tuesday, Gates said Iran was “opening a lot of offices and a lot of fronts behind which they interfere in what is going on.” Gates offered no further explanation for what sounded like a Cold War-era propaganda charge against the Soviet Union.

It was not clear why Gates would make such an accusation on a non-military issue unless he was hoping to throw sand in the diplomatic gears on Iran.

Gates has made no secret of his skepticism about any softening of U.S. policy toward Iran. In response to a question at the National Defense University last September on how he would advise the next president to improve relations with Iran, Gates implicitly rejected what he called “outreach” to Iran as useless.

“[W]e have to look at the history of outreach [to Iran] that was very real, under successive presidents, and did not yield any results,” he said.

In the 1980s, Gates was known at the CIA as a hardliner not only on the Soviet Union but on Iran as well. Former CIA official Graham Fuller recalled in an interview that Gates often repeated in staff meetings, “The only moderate Iranian is one who has run out of bullets.”

Gates’s 1992 sabotage of the Bush plan for reciprocating Iran’s goodwill relied in part on making public charges against Iran which created a more unfavorable political climate in Washington for such a policy.

Bush had referred in his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1989, to U.S. hostages being held by militant groups in Lebanon and suggested that “assistance” on the issue would be “long remembered,” adding, “Goodwill begets goodwill.” That was a clear signal to Iran of a willingness to respond positively to Iranian assistance in freeing the hostages.

After Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative, was elected Iranian president in July 1989, Bush asked U.N. Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar to convey a message to Rafsanjani: Bush was ready to improve US-Iran relations if Iran used its influence in Lebanon to free the U.S. hostages. Giandomenico Picco, the U.N. negotiator sent to meet with Rafsanjani, recalled in an interview with Inter Press Service that he repeated Bush’s inaugural pledge to the Iranian president.

In 1991, Rafsanjani used both secret intermediaries and shuttle diplomacy by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akhbar Velayati to ensure the release of hostages held by anti-Western groups in Lebanon. Rafsanjani later told Picco that he had to use considerable Iranian political capital in Lebanon to get the hostages released in the expectation that it would bring a U.S. reciprocal gesture, according to the U.N. negotiator.

In a meeting with Picco six weeks after the last U.S. hostage was released in early December 1991, Bush’s National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft said “it might be possible” to take Iran off the terrorist list, reduce economic sanctions and further compensate Iranians for the July 1988 shoot-down of an Iranian civilian Airbus by the U.S. navy, which had killed all 290 Iranian passengers and crew. Scowcroft believed a decision might be made in early March.

Picco took personal notes of the meeting, from which he quoted in the interview.

On Feb. 25, 1992, Scowcroft again met Picco and told him that the administration was considering allowing the sale of some airplanes and parts and easing other economic sanctions, according to Picco’s notes.

But at a meeting in Washington on Apr. 10, Scowcroft informed Picco that there would be “no goodwill to beget goodwill.”

Scowcroft explained the sudden scuttling of the initiative by citing new intelligence on Iran. He referred to an alleged assassination of an Iranian national in Connecticut by Iranian agents and intelligence reports that Iran would use “Hezbollah types” in Europe and elsewhere to respond to Israel’s assassination of Hezbollah leader Abbas Mussawi in southern Lebanon in February.

Scowcroft also cited intelligence that Iran had made a policy decision to follow “a different road” from one that would have allowed improved relations with Washington. He said that intelligence related to Iranian “rearmament” and to its nuclear program, according to Picco’s notes.

But the alleged new intelligence on Iran cited by Scowcroft reflected the personal views of Gates, who had become CIA director for the second time in November 1991.

Gates was assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor from 1989 to 1991, and was well aware of the plan to make a gesture to Iran. His response after returning as CIA director was to launch a series of new accusations about the threat from Iran.

In Congressional testimony in January 1992, Gates said Iran’s rearmament effort included “programs in weapons of mass destruction not only to prepare for the potential reemergence of the Iraqi special weapons threat but to solidify Iran’s preeminent position in the gulf and Southeast [sic] Asia.”

Gates testified in February 1992 that Iran was “building up its special weapons capabilities” and the following month, he told Congress that Iran was seeking nuclear, chemical and biological weapons “capabilities”” and was “probably” going to”promote terrorism.”

But Gates was not accurately reflecting a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that had been completed on Oct. 17, 1991, just before he became director. New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino wrote just two weeks after the NIE was completed that it concluded only that “some” Iranian leaders were calling for a nuclear weapons program, and that the nuclear program was still in its infancy.

Sciolino reported that “some administration officials” believed the NIE “underestimates the scope of Iranian intentions,” suggesting that it had not supported Gates’s personal views on the issue.

The current intelligence reports sent to the White House to strengthen the argument against any gesture to Iran also turned out to be misleading. No allegation of an Iranian role in a murder in Connecticut has ever surfaced. And no terrorist attack by “Hezbollah types” in retaliation for the Israeli assassination is known to have occurred.

That was not even the first time Gates had sought to use intelligence to torpedo an effort to achieve an opening with an adversary. During the Ronald Reagan administration, Gates, as CIA deputy director and then director, had discouraged any warming toward the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, asserting that he would not be able to alter Soviet policy toward the United States. Former Secretary of State George Shultz decried Gates’s politicized intelligence to bolster the case against policy change his 1993 memoirs.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Dawson said on January 28th, 2009 at 11:42am #

    Gates deserves life in prison for his war crimes against Nicaragua, but Obama did appoint him and is the president. The buck goes and stops there.

  2. RH2 said on January 28th, 2009 at 11:43am #

    (Gates testified in February 1992 that Iran was “building up its special weapons capabilities” and the following month, he told Congress that Iran was seeking nuclear, chemical and biological weapons “capabilities”” and was “probably” going to”promote terrorism.”) and destroy Israel !

    The field studies of Gates and his empirical results will most likely find application by the new face of the old ideology, Obama who like none of his predecessors offered AIPAC at its annual meeting last year a boundless obsequiousness. Obama tells us, a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, whereas a nuclear, chemical and biological Isreal, a criminal beyond reasonable doubt, is in defiance of “international law” acceptable and even defendable.

    This is exactly the zionist misleading about Iran striving for the destruction of Israel with wmd? Why should Iran risk being bombed back into a desert? Why should it inevitably destroy Palestinians? If you ask a sergeant or any war servant at the pentagon, would it be possible to destroy the White House with wmd and spare” good” Washingtonians around, his answer would be, No.

  3. Max Shields said on January 28th, 2009 at 11:54am #

    W.hat is apparent is that Obama was never the right person for the job.

    Let’s be clear, he’s the right person to do a re-enactment of previous presidents during the hayday of empire, but that’s over…and the empire is dropping fast.

    What he’s yet to provide is evidence that he really understands this time and place. History tells you something about the fall of empires, but it tells you nothing about NOW. I’ve said this here repeatedly, this is not the 1920s/30s. The confluence of dangerous forces to human existence have never been witnessed in all of human history.

    He hired old shoes and talks a talk while bombing yet another sovereign nation just the other day and killing 22 (18 of which were clearly civilians). But it’s not simply the continuation of the butchery, it’s the fact that he’s not the guy that’s needed.

    From a person perspective, local change is all I can muster. But the national change needed is so profound and fundamental that our new elitist President won’t figure it out until it’s too late (we’re just about there). We don’t need a popular president. We don’t need a black president. We don’t need a brilliant president. We don’t need a photogenic president.

    We need someone with balls who can think clearly through the problem, and not give a f$$$ck what the MSM or the polls or pols say.

    He aint the guy. He’s a get along sort that may have worked a few decades ago when we had the luxury of banality.

  4. Suthiano said on January 28th, 2009 at 12:32pm #

    Well said Max.

    I would add that the president needed is the one who would realize that there should be no president. That role is a folly of old ways of thinking.

    How can we have a president, one who “presides over”?. From Latin praesident, pp of praesid?re, prae + sedere; literally to sit over. The concept suggests that the president can somehow be detached from the body he is sitting over. This is foolishness. obviously he or she came to be president after a process occurring through the “body”. Clearly his family and friends remain part of the “body”, results of decisions affect body. I point to Descartes, but Hobbes’ Leviathan, in which monarch is head (mind) and people/state is body, is also traditional source of confusion.

    We don’t even preside (sit over) our own lives, we sit in them.. banality no more. no more presidents.

  5. Janet, USA said on January 28th, 2009 at 12:33pm #

    Gates gets his marching orders from Israel and those SOBs are going to bring an end to this planet one way or another.

  6. Gareth Porter said on January 28th, 2009 at 12:34pm #

    I do not disagree with the comments suggesting that Obama is far too prepared to accommodate the Israeli lobby and the U.S. national security state. On the other hand, George H. W. Bush was even more deeply enmeshed in the national security state and was capable of seeing that it was in the U.S. interest to improve relations with Iran. But I would argue that Gates represents a position somewhere between Obama and the most extreme neonconservative faction of the government and is therefore a more acute threat to world peace and justice.

  7. RH2 said on January 28th, 2009 at 12:38pm #


    “The elitist President” figures it well out, but he is not ready to concede to it, serving his opportunism. It is rather those electing and celebrating him with tears in the eyes like Messiah, who are not capable of figuring it out, except the zionists who exactly know what goes on and what they want to obtain.

  8. Max Shields said on January 28th, 2009 at 3:06pm #

    While if I ask myself the question: do I need a president, the answer is simply NO. But who’s going to demilitarize this monster, who’s going to eliminate the 10,000 + nukes here and elsewhere? Who’s going to deal with global warming (call it what you will but the friggin glaciers are melting at increasingly alarming rates..)? Who’s going to deal with the fact that we have a monstrous complex called industrialism which is completely fossile based? – food, the whole friggin world we live in is based on a declining source of vital energy.

    What I’m saying is that Opee hasn’t got the balls to do what needs to be done. Not start wars (he thinks that’s what he has to do to show he has the balls to be Commander and Frigg’n Chief). Its the balls to see clearly the problem, and say fuc*k you to the establishment and do what needs doing. And that aint kissing Republican asses or Democratic asses.

    He’s a lier and his lies are manifested in the continued bombing and killing of civilians using US dollars. He’s already got blood on his hands, he’s tainted. You can’t be a half way murder because you say something about torture or Gitmo. Bush was what he was. And Obama is a straight up lier.

  9. Suthiano said on January 29th, 2009 at 1:04am #


    My bad. I did not make myself clear. i was agreeing with you fully. YOu were saying that we needed a president w/ balls, and I just wanted to elucidate what I was confident you meant but didn’t explicitly say. I’ve heard you echo those sentiments before.

  10. Andres Kargar said on January 29th, 2009 at 1:14am #

    The 1953 CIA coup in Iran and the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Dr. Mossadeq seems to have traumatized entire generations of Iranians. Just like the Palestinians who cannot forget the theft of their lands by the Zionist thieves and live for the day when they can return to Palestine, every Iranian I have talked to, has some deep impression of the coup. Today, the late Dr. Mossadeq is a national hero, revered by the majority of the population.

    As such, I don’t understand why Iranians would ever want to re-establish relations with the United States, and in light of this, President Ahmadinejad’s demand for an apology and a real change of policy from the United States is quite judicious on his part.

  11. Max Shields said on January 29th, 2009 at 10:16am #


    Point well taken.


  12. 3@A said on January 29th, 2009 at 11:33am #

    Quite agreed with above views , that president obama need a hard ball , he can troubleshoot half of the US problem , if he can resolve the israeli-palestine conflict so that US dollar not wasted in Middle East desert , by controling Israeli atrcities on helpless civilian , by this action he can shoot down this Osama and his cadre once and all and he can concentrate on Financial aspect . we have to undersatnd that there are also other people who live in this world who want a dignified life ….

  13. dino said on January 29th, 2009 at 12:13pm #

    The problem is that no Iranian voice is heard in Occidental media.When Ahmadinejad had been accepted to speak at Columbia University his speech was received with sympathy and applauds by students.Of course what is left from the speech in the Net is the misunderstanding made by him on the guys in Iran.In different and rare occasions when he was asked Ahmadinejad said that his country is not interested to get wmd,and ayatollah Khameney said that wmd is in discordance with Islam .Anyway to say since 92 that Iran is a threat because they immediately will get wmd is ridiculous.What kind of immediate is it which during 19 years and continues.